Play money: Shelling it out for swingsets

Dina Gerdeman

Lisa Morton spent about $4,500 on an outdoor playset for her son – an expense she found hard to swallow at first – but more than a year later, she believes the swings, fort, rock wall and other rough-and-tumble accessories were worth every penny.

``At the time I was thinking it was really expensive for a playset, but I’m so glad I bought it,'' said Morton, who had the set installed in her Abington backyard last May, shortly before her son Aaron Jones’ 7th birthday. ``He loves it so much. He even goes out and plays in the winter time. He can get his wiggles out and clear his mind and develop his coordination. If I add up the cost of the playset and divide it over the years he’ll use it and add in the benefits, it was definitely worth it.''

While Morton’s $4,500 playset may seem pricey to some, the cost of that set is actually modest compared with other swingsets out there. They can run as high as – are you ready? – $122,000.

At a time the real estate market is crashing and a recession is looming, many people may be holding off on that second SUV or scaling back the two-week vacation, but they are still willing to pay big money for high-quality playsets, according to swingset companies. While cheaper metal sets and smaller wooden sets are available at places like Toys R Us and Wal-Mart for a few hundred dollars, many people are buying much more elaborate and expensive models.

At perhaps the highest of the high end, PoshTots sells its Tumble Outpost – a giant playset 351/2 feet long with a five-level stacking fort, wrap-around ramp and super slide, among other features – for $122,730.

``It’s over-the-top crazy,'' said PoshTots founder Andrea Edmunds. ``People are spending a lot of time at home, so they may not be traveling as much or buying other things as much, but they are still spending money on their children.''

Edmunds only recently added the Tumble Outpost to her collection and has not yet sold one, but she has sold plenty of custom-built outdoor playhouses that range from $8,000 to $10,000. She has even had customers buy two playhouses at once.

Donald Hoffman, owner of Creative Playthings – which has stores in Pembroke, Easton and Norwood – said the company saw double-digit increases in sales this March over the same month last year. The company’s playsets can run as high as $10,000 but average about $2,500.

``We think people are going to be spending more time in their backyard and less money traveling this summer,'' he said. ``We’ve also had quite a long winter. People are happy to be thinking of spring and summer on its way.''

CedarWorks President Barrett Brown agreed, saying the company was cautious in its sales predictions this year because of the lagging economy, but so far business remains strong.

``We’re not seeing a slow-down,'' said Brown, who noted that the bulk of the company’s playsets run $2,000 to $5,000, but estimated that as much as 20 percent of the business comes from high-end playsets that cost $20,000 and up. ``People would rather pay what it costs to get the right product for their family.''

Parents often start out by looking at basic playset designs with two or three swings and a fort that range anywhere from a few hundred to $2,000, but then it becomes tempting to add other features – ropes, ramps, rock walls, tunnels, sandboxes, picnic tables, the list is endless – and before parents know it, the price has skyrocketed.

``The sets are modular, so parents can keep adding on and adding on,'' said Kelley Koehler, spokeswoman for Rainbow Play Systems. ``We have dealers who sell $30,000 playsets.''

And then there’s the cost of installation. While some companies, like Creative Playthings, include delivery and installation in their prices, others, like CedarWorks, require customers to either put the sets together themselves or hire workers to assemble them, which often adds 10 percent to 15 percent to the total cost.

Plus, it is recommended that homeowners prepare the ground under the set with wood chips or recycled tires several inches deep as a cushion in case a child falls from the set, although many parents skip that step because prepping the area can cost almost as much as the playset itself.

The expense doesn’t end there. After the wooden sets are exposed to sun and rain, many of them need to be resealed or re-stained every couple of years or so. Creative Playthings will restain its sets for customers for $300.

Others weather the elements without the need for regular maintenance. Morton, for example, didn’t mind paying more for a CedarWorks playset because the company uses northern white cedar – the sets naturally turn gray and do not need to be stained.

``I wanted something that would last through the years, and I didn’t want to have to maintain it,'' Morton said.

CedarWorks’ higher-end sets, which cost $40,000 or more, are bigger and include extra play features, but they also tend to be prettied up with shingle roofs or fort walls with moon and heart cut-outs. Many homeowners are willing to invest that much for a good playset that is likely to last several years and one that will look as nice in their yards as their gardens and flower beds, Brown said.

``People want to put something in the yard as beautiful as the landscaping they have invested in,'' he said.

And many parents look at a swingset as an investment. Although the prime playing ages for the sets tend to be 3 to 8, many kids as old as 12 continue to use them regularly, Brown said.

``It becomes less about the climbing wall at that point and more about a place for your child to hang out with friends,'' he said. ``When parents buy playsets, they are thinking, I’ve only got kids once, and when I look out my window to the back yard for the next 10 years, I want something I’m going to feel good about. I don’t want to look at it and say, ‘I can’t wait for that thing to be gone.’''

Dina Gerdeman is at